Film Review: Kathryn Bigelow “Zero Dark Thirty” Exposes Bin Laden Hunt and Kill – Carries on the “West meets Arab” spy thriller tradition…

Social History – Spies and the Middle East proves rich background for films – Zero Dark Thirty carries on tradition.

Early 1900 spies in Middle East- The Director of Military Intelligence (UK), Colonel Sir Francis Wingate, talking to an Arab civilian on leaving a train on the Sudan Military Railway, possibly near Atbara. Colonel Wingate spoke fluent Arabic. The Arab is probably Mohammed Fadl, a Sudanese spy from Dafur who was imprisoned and mutilated by the Khalifa. His right hand and left foot had been amputated as punishment.  And we are concerned about water boarding?  

Even though the film runs more than 2 1/2 hours, Zero Dark Thirty is so pared to essentials that even politics are eliminated; there’s essentially no Bush or Cheney, no Iraq War, no Obama announcing the success of the May 2, 2011, raid on bin Laden’s in-plain-sight Pakistani compound.

So there are no worries that Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden is a political statement.

Bigelow and Mark Boal have made a very focused and harrowing thriller that centers on the real life female CIA agent who was obsessed with catching and killing bin Laden. Jessica Chastain leads a huge cast, and puts herself right into competition with Jennifer Lawrence of “Silver Linings Playbook,” for Best Actress in a Drama. And even though it’s a military movie, “Zero Dark Thirty” really stars Chastain and Jennifer Ehle, with the men of the film–played by Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass and Harold Perrineau– taking secondary but important roles.

The most interesting thing right off the bat is that “Zero Dark Thirty” is not political. President Obama makes a brief appearance seen off a TV and it’s not necessarily positive. While American intelligence is water boarding prisoners, Obama is seen saying he doesn’t believe in torture. The whole first fiften minutes of so is taken up with the waterboarding of a prisoner. Once you see it, you’ll be writing to your congressman to prevent it from happening again. But Obama disappears after that. And the CIA and the military take over.If Bigelow and Boal got secret access to the Situation Room from the time Osama bin Laden was killed, you don’t see it.

What you do see is the CIA doing something successful after many botches and tragedies in the war against terrorism. One scene that stands out is a meeting in Washington of the principle CIA players. Mark Strong, who’s great, comes in starts screaming at them there is no “secret” other group working on the problem. They’re it, and they’ve got to produce results.

Initially, with the torture scenes and the introduction of Chastain as Maya, the red haired take no prisoners agent, you do feel like you might be watching “Homeland: The Movie.” But Bigelow is a consummate filmmaker. Her movie grows and flourishes from that point on. Boal’s screenplay isn’t so much about backstory for the characters (there isn’t any) but making them interesting enough to follow through this crusade. It’s to his and Chastain’s credit that Maya gets richer and develops more layers as the film progresses, particularly once Ehle’s very brilliant agent exits the story. (I don’t wan to give too much away.)

So for now: “Zero Dark Thirty” is a likely Best Picture nomination, with kudos to all involved. Chastain and Ehle are the standouts. And there will much discussion of this film as we come through the week…


About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

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